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The ballads of Servia occupy a high position, perhaps the highest position, in the ballad literature of Europe. Of them Jacob Grimm wrote: “They would, if well known, astonish Europe,” and “in them breathes a clear and inborn poetry such as can scarcely be found among any other modern people.”1 The origin of this popular literature goes back to a period of which no written record exists; its known history dates from the fourteenth century, since which time it is absolutely continuous. And in Servia, unlike England and Spain, ballads still survive as an important part of the nation’s intellectual life; they are still sung, and still composed, by peasant poets who have received their training from oral tradition instead of from the printed page.
According to their subjects the Servian ballads may be divided into two very unequal divisions, the first, and by far the larger, being based on the national history, while the second lacks any such historical foundation. Yet the line between the two groups cannot be strictly drawn; well-known folk-lore motives or mere popular jests are p. 2 continually attached to historical heroes. Such ballads as Prince Marko’s Plowing and Marko Drinks Wine in Ramazán called “historical” only in the most ultra-catholic interpretation of the term.
The historical ballads may again be divided into more or less definite cycles. First in order of time come those dealing with the kings of the Némanich dynasty (1168-1367). This royal line made less impression on the popular mind by its heroic exploits than by its piety in founding churches and monasteries (cf. p. 28). The surviving ballads of the cycle, which are few in number, are represented in this volume by Urosh and the Sons of Marnyáva1 and The Building of Skadar. After the death of the great tsar Stepan Dushan in 1356, his son, the weak Urosh, came to the throne, but was unable to preserve his authority intact. The leader of the revolting chieftains was King Vukáshin, who defeated his lawful superior and caused him to be slain. Of the rivalry of the two men the ballad Urosh and the Sons of Marnyáva preserves a distant echo; to the historic brothers Vukáshin and Úglyesha it adds a third, Goyko, unknown outside of folk-lore. Another glimpse, still more legendary, of the three brothers is preserved in The Building of Skadar.
The cycle of the battle of Kósovo forms the classic center of the Servian ballads. After the death of Vukáshin, being hard pressed by the p. 3 Turks, the Servians in 1371 elected as their tsar, Lazar, a leader who had served under Dushan and was connected with him by marriage. His efforts to save the country were vain; on June 15 (St. Vitus’ day), 1389, his armies were crushed by those of Murad I. Both rulers fell on the battlefield, Murad being killed by a Servian to whom one of the contemporary accounts gives the title of “a faithful servant of Lazar, by name Milosh.” About 1431 Constantine the Philosopher, a Servian biographer, states that the “great noble” who killed Murad was “slandered to his lord by envious tongues as wishing to betray him.” An anonymous Italian writer (about 1500) tells how on the eve of battle Lazar reproached Milosh with wishing to betray him, and how Milosh replied that the event would prove his truth or treason; the same source states that on the battlefield there was a report of the treachery of a voývoda1 named Drágoslav Príbishich. Finally Mauro Orbini in his Regno de gli Slavi (1601) for the first time ascribes the betrayal of Lazar to his son-in-law Vuk Bránkovich, whose fair fame is thus wrongfully besmirched. Orbini makes Milosh, like Vuk, the son-in-law of Lazar, and tells of the origin of the enmity of the two men in a quarrel between their wives Mara and Vúkosava; in other words, he gives the Kósovo legend in practically its complete form, as it is found in the ballads here printed.2 It is, however, probably the product of popular p. 4 tradition, not of Orbini and his predecessors.
Upon this Kósovo legend many episodes are grafted, such as those of Ban Strahin, Musich Stevan, and the Maid of Kósovo. The ballads often represent varying traditions; thus the accounts of Lazar’s church in The Battle of Kósovo and The Building of Ravánitsa are not perfectly consistent with each other. They depart widely from historical truth, making Vukáshin, for example, who died in 1871, and Ertseg Stepan, who belongs to a later period, both take part in the battle of Kósovo.1
These Kósovo songs are emphatically not fragments of a primitive epic, but ballads dealing with detached episodes. The attempts that have been made to stitch them together into a connected whole result in damaging splendid ballads without constructing an epic worthy of the name. They furnish an argument of some weight against the Homeric theories of Lachmann and his school.
If the Kósovo cycle be the most elevated, dignified, epic portion of the Servian popular poetry, the ballads of Marko Krályevich (Prince Marko) are of more dramatic interest, combining tragic pathos with almost ribald comedy in a fashion worthy of an Elizabethan playwright. Unlike Strahin and Milosh, who, to borrow a phrase from Dryden, are “patterns of exact virtue,” radiant as their garments, Marko is a burly spoiled child, strong, self-willed, capricious, at times cruel, but p. 5 always brave, always kind to the weak and friendless, whether they be fair maidens or mere birds of prey, and, above all, always a devoted son to his old mother Yévrosima. The historic Marko, the son of King Vukáshin, was not of great importance. After his father’s death he ruled over a portion of Macedonia, with Prilip as his capital; in 1385 he submitted to Turkish sovereignty; and in 1394 he perished, fighting for the Sultan Bajazet against the Voývoda Mircha of Wallachia. But he must have endeared himself to the nation by his personal qualities, for he became by far the best known and the best beloved hero of the ballads. In one respect, at least, the ballads about him are true to history. Although Marko is associated with Milosh as his sworn brother, and although he visits the field of Kósovo after the defeat of the Servians (see pp. 130-32), he is assigned no part in the battle itself; as to the cause of his absence from the fray the ballads are silent.
From the great days of heroic conflict with the Turks to the dark ages of oppression, the ballads of The Maiden Márgita and Rayko the Voývoda, with its lament over fallen champions, forms a natural transition. The time of Turkish rule lacked great exploits and great personalities; its heroes were the hayduks, or robber outlaws, of whom the most famous was Starína Novak, who with his band of followers, including his sworn brother, the bold Rádivoye, lived in Bosnia late in the sixteenth century. Though they use muskets instead of bows, these worthies, as they appear p. 6 in the ballads, are own cousins of Robin Hood and Little John.
“After Herzegovina was subdued by the Turks (1482), many of the inhabitants fled to Dalmatia and Klis [near Salona], and after the fall of Klis (1537) they went to Zengg [Senye in the ballads] on the Croatian seacoast, in order, as hired soldiers of the emperor, to defend the country from Turkish marauding bands: these are the fugitives.”1 A special cycle of ballads glorifies these “fugitives,” of whom Ivo of Senye, who lived about 1600, is the chief hero. With this cycle may be grouped the ballads of the “seacoast heroes,” who, however, are not in the strict sense “fugitives.” They are not from Zengg, but from Kotári, in northern Dalmatia, and are of a later date, the middle and end of the seventeenth century. Among them is Stoyan Yánkovich, who in 1689 contributed to the fall of Údbina and the freeing of Lika and Kríbava from the Turks. The ballads that deal with him have little connection with his actual exploits.
Of ballads more recent in subject-matter this volume contains but one specimen, The War of the Montenegrins with Mahmud Pasha (1796), which represents the cycle of the freeing of Montenegro. Unlike their predecessors, the ballads of this group are better history than poetry. “Short and simple, generally without poetic descriptions or long conversations, almost entirely without the vila or raven motives, they sing in a realistic fashion p. 7 the wars of the Montenegrins with the Turks; they celebrate only real persons, and when they mention even unimportant actors, always preserve the topography of their doings accurately and consistently. In them women play no part.”1
The ballads lacking historical foundation are of the most varied sort. Thus The Serpent Bridegroom and Sister and Brother are versified fairy tales, dealing with familiar folk-lore motives. Predrag and Nenad is ostensibly a hayduk story, but its plot is not purely Servian; it is known to English readers from Malory’s tale of Balin and Balan, or Tennyson’s modern version of it. St. Nicholas is a naïve popular legend, while Muyo and Áliya tells of the misdeeds of an unusually wicked vila, or mountain nymph. On the other hand, The Wife of Hasan Aga is a simple, powerful tragedy of domestic life.
The Servian heroic ballads are now all composed in one measure, an unrimed line of ten syllables, with a cæsura after the fourth syllable. There is no regular arrangement of accents; but, as no Servian word (except of course monosyllables) is accented on the ultima, the effect of the verse, when read or recited, is of an irregular trochaic rhythm.
|Ĭ pōnĕsĕ trī tōvără blāgă|
Yă kād tākŏ svādbŭ urēdĭshĕ.
When the ballads are sung, the prose accents are set aside, and the lines become regular trochaic pentameter.2
Previous English translations have imitated more or less closely this Servian meter. To the translators of the present volume it seemed better to cast aside entirely the native measure, as one essentially foreign to the genius of the English language, and to adopt a verse modeled on that which, in Sigurd the Volsung, William Morris has made classic by his handling of a subject that is spiritually akin to the Kósovo ballads. At this point it may be well to forestall a possible cavil. Metrists will note that the translators, while in the main employing the measure of six and a half feet or thirteener, have liberally interspersed the seven-foot line or fourteener. Lovers of the glorious measure of Sigurd the Volsung may perhaps resent this variation, but the citation of a precedent from Macaulay should be sufficient to establish the dignity of the practice:
|And in the vats of Luna,|
This year the must shall foam
Round the white feet of laughing girls
Whose sires have marched to Rome.
The Servian ballads are ordinarily recited or chanted to the accompaniment of the gusle, a crude, one-stringed instrument, in appearance somewhat like a mandolin, but played with a bow. The tones of the gusle come in only at the close of the verses. On their distribution Karájich wrote thus in 1823: “The heroic songs are now sung most often and with most zest in Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the southern, mountainous regions of p. 9 Servia. In these places even to-day almost every house has its gusle, and it is hard to find a man who does not know how to play it, and many women and girls know how.”1 In the lower regions the gusle grows less common, until it finally becomes the peculiar possession of blind beggars, who sing the songs at fairs and church festivals.
The anonymous authorship of these songs may excite surprise among a people of bookish training and habits like ourselves. It will be readily understood that a singer knowing some fifty of the ballads by heart can without great difficulty compose new songs on any passing event of village life, even as a cultivated gentleman, well versed in even one of Shakespeare’s plays, can find fitting quotations for an after-dinner speech on any imaginable topic. Karájich gives an example of such a jesting song composed upon a village wedding. Ballads of this type have no value in themselves, and disappear from memory along with the trifling event that occasioned them. But “just as waggish old men and youths compose these jocose songs, so others compose serious ballads of battles and other notable events. It is not strange that one cannot learn who first composed even the most recent of the ballads, to say nothing of the older ones; but it is strange that among the common people nobody regards it as an art or a thing to be proud of to compose a new ballad; and, not to speak of boasting of doing so, everyone, even the real author, refuses to acknowledge the ballad, and p. 10 says that he has heard it from another. This is true of the most recent ballads, of which it is known that they were not brought from elsewhere, but arose on the spot from an event of a few days ago; but when even a year has passed since the event and the ballad, or when a ballad is heard of an event of yesterday, but of a distant locality, no one even thinks of asking about its origin.”1
A few words are due the memory of the great collector of the Servian national songs, Vuk Stefánovich Karájich (1787-1864), from whose work all but one of the ballads in the present volume have been translated.2 Born of a peasant family, under Turkish rule, Vuk early learned to read and write, and while still a boy served as a scribe to Black George, the leader of the Servian revolt. Owing to an illness he became a cripple and was restricted to a bookish career. In 1813 he became acquainted in Vienna with the Slavic scholar Kopitar, whose attention he attracted by an article written in the living Servian language instead of the artificial ecclesiastical dialect then current in Servian literature, and who encouraged him to p. 11 undertake the gathering of popular songs and ballads. In 1814-15 he published the first fruits of his labors, a small collection in two volumes; a second, enlarged edition appeared in four volumes, 1824-33; and a third edition, with still further additions, followed in 1841-66, in six volumes, of which the last two were printed posthumously. Finally the Servian government has reissued the great work, with additions from Karájich’s manuscripts, in nine volumes, 1891-1902, containing, besides two volumes of folk-songs, nearly five hundred ballads.
Karájich also published a collection of popular tales and one of proverbs. But his activity as a folk-lorist was only one side of his labors. In 1814 he published the first edition of his Servian Grammar, and in 1818 he published the first edition of his Servian Dictionary, with translations in German and Latin, which, in a revised form, is still a standard work. He prepared a translation of the New Testament into the living speech of the people. Finally, not to speak of his less important writings, he revised on a phonetic basis the alphabet and spelling of his native language, and his system, after years of persecution, partly owing to his introduction of the letter j from the hated “Catholic” Latin alphabet, has long since been adopted as the Servian official orthography. Few writers of books have had so great an influence, or an influence so purely beneficent, on the life of their nation as had Vuk Stefánovich Karájich.
Some explanation is needed of the pronunciation of the Servian proper names. No simple transliteration can correctly indicate the native pronunciation; that here adopted seems open to as few objections as any other. The vowels and diphthongs should be given their regular “continental” values: roughly, father, café, machine note, rule, aye, bey, boy. I never forms a diphthong with a preceding vowel: Vó-in, Vá-i-sti-na. Y is always either a consonant or the second element of a diphthong; a consonant followed by y plus a vowel forms one syllable with them: Né-ma-nya. The consonants and consonantal digraphs have their ordinary English sounds; the following are apparently all in regard to which there could be ambiguity. G is always “hard,” as in gift; j is pronounced as in jelly, the j of the Servian alphabet being here rendered by y (Yug); s is always surd, as in soft, passing; z and ch are pronounced as in zebra and church, not with their German sounds; zh represents the sound of s in pleasure. Ch and j, it should be added, each transliterate two Servian sounds, only one of which corresponds to the English value of the letter used for it. The Servian “vocalic r,” as in Srja, has been rendered by ri, Srija. C has not been used in the transliteration; thus, Tsétinye (Cetinje). The accent of words of two syllable is always on the first syllable; on words of three or more syllables the accent is always marked. No attempt has been made to indicate the quantities of the Servian vowels or the secondary accents.
1 Quoted by Vogl, Marko Kraljevits, p. iii.
1 This ballad is here printed as the first of those dealing with Prince Marko, with which also it may be classed.
1 Duke, lord.
2 The story of the quarrel of Mara and Vúkosava is not, however, included in this volume.
1 This topic is discussed by H. Munro Chadwick, The Heroic Age (Cambridge, 1912), pp. 818-819.
1 Quoted by Pópovich without indication of source.
2 Karájich, Preface to second edition of Servian National Songs, 1824 (in government edition, 1891).
1 Ibid. Acquaintance with these simple statements by Karájich as to conditions with which he was familiar, in a country where ballads are still a living force, might have saved writers on English balladry from much empty theorizing. Despite the prevailing anonymity, the authorship of some of the modern ballads is known with reasonable certainty: see p. 225, note.
2 The one exception is the ballad How Milosh Killed the Sultan Murad, which is from a small volume, Boj na Kosovu, published at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, no date.